Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (Foster)

There is a popular misconception that Stephen Collins Foster (1826—1864) found success as a song-writer despite lacking any formal education and was thus a true ‘folk’ musician. In truth he was born into a middle class family and was educated at home, writing his first songs for the members of a secret club which met twice weekly at the Fosters’ Pittsburgh home.

Many of his songs aim to ‘humanise’ the black American slaves – Pittsburgh was a centre for abolitionist activities - although it is perhaps surprising, considering the subjects of many of his songs, that Foster only once visited the deep southern states of the USA – on his honeymoon in 1852.

He was a meticulous worker and sometimes spent months perfecting the lyrics of a song. His first success was Oh! Susanna (1848) and as his popularity grew he moved with his young family to New York to be near his publishers. This was not a success and Jane, his wife, and Marion, his daughter, moved back to Pittsburgh in 1854. Foster wrote Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair as a result of her continued absence.

Despite the widespread success of songs such as My Old Kentucky Home, Beautiful Dreamer and Jeanie, the Civil War interrupted Foster’s burgeoning career and died a pauper at the early age of 37.